Soyez mysterieuse—“Be mysterious”— Gauguin thus inscribed a wood relief he carved in the Breton port town of Le Pouldu during September 1890. Mystery is an essential dimension in many of this artist’s paintings, and indeed Bretonne et oie au bord de l’eau posseses this quality in subtle, meaningful measure.
Lifting the hem of her skirts, a young woman in native Breton attire wades barelegged across a shallow stream. She is perhaps a guardeuse d’oie, a “goose girl.” Having wandered off, one of her charges approaches her, as if to rejoin a gaggle gathered beyond the edge of the painting. Another plausible narrative is that a wild goose, its wings raised in a menacing posture, is about to accost this girl as she innocently makes her way through field and stream. The domesticated goose is associated with qualities of fidelity and conjugal happiness; the more aggressive feral species is linked in ancient mythology to Apollo, Eros, Priapus, and Mars, gods of the sun, love, and war. Elsewhere in his Breton pictures, Gauguin drew attention to the phallic connotation of the goose’s elongated neck and beak. With a smile, one may suspect, the artist invoked in Bretonne et oie, for the sake of contrast and mystery, all the various aspects of this avian symbolism.
The meeting of girl and goose, in either scenario, while the stuff of fairy tales, is otherwise unremarkable, the scene prosaic. Yet in almost every other respect, this painting is deeply mysterious, while defying ready interpretation, in terms of form as well as content. Gauguin’s structuring of flattened, horizon-less space is intentionally ambiguous and dreamlike. The elements of earth and water mingle indistinctly; non-descriptive accents of paint appear to drift across the canvas. Most marvelous of all is the mesmerizing, virtually ecstatic, chromatic intensity of the colors Gauguin chose to render his conception. Vermilion, inspired by flowering buckwheat fields in Brittany, became Gauguin’s favorite key color in his work during this period. Taken in sum, these qualities suggest a novel, unprecedented pictorial reality, abstracted from the memory of an actual experience, which the artist has imbued with multiple layers of significance, as an expression of his most intuitive, subjective, and individual temperament.
Gauguin painted Bretonne et oie au bord de l’eau in Pont-Aven during early September 1888. This canvas is the immediate harbinger of the groundbreaking development in modern painting that Gauguin achieved soon afterwards, later the same month—the new synthétiste reality that he created in La vision du sermon, widely regarded to be the founding symbolist painting (the very next entry in Wildenstein, no. 308). The two paintings share Breton motifs, a flattened perspective, the absence of a horizon, Gauguin’s adored vermilion, and his penchant for the mysterious.
Having returned in mid-November 1887 from a productive four-month stay in tropical Martinique, Gauguin found it impossible to rent in Paris a studio he could afford or to pay the models he needed for his work. He decided to return to Pont-Aven in Brittany, where two years previously he stayed at Marie-Jeanne Gloanec’s pension for only sixty-five francs per month for room and full board. He could easily arrange credit when circumstances often required.
Arriving in late January 1888, Gauguin badly needed rest; for the next several months he slowly convalesced from the lingering, debilitating effects of dysentery and malaria he had contracted in Martinique. “Three days out of every six I am in bed, suffering horribly, without respite, and so have little inclination to work,” he wrote to Claude-Émile Schuffenecker in February. “I drift along and silently contemplate nature, completely absorbed in my art.” The powerful mystique of ancient Celtic Brittany was again taking hold. Here, Gauguin was certain, he could pursue his dream of a life apart from the hypocrisy, demands and restraints of modern bourgeois living. “The country life for me. I like living in Brittany; here I find a savage, primitive quality. When my wooden shoes echo on the granite ground, I hear the dull, muted, powerful sound I am looking for in painting” (D. Guérin, ed., Paul Gauguin: The Writings of a Savage, New York, 1978, p. 23).
By the arrival of summer, Gauguin was again working in his best form, translating that “powerful sound” into his painting. “My latest things are coming along well and I think you’ll find they have a particular touch, or, rather, the affirmation of my earlier searchings,” he wrote to Schuffenecker on 14 August. “The self-esteem one acquires and a well-earned feeling of one’s own strength are the only consolation–in this world.” As he distanced himself from the naturalism of the Impressionists, Gauguin acquired a deeper understanding of the need to assert in his art a more forceful, personal vision of the world. He passed on to the Schuffenecker the insight he had taken from his most recent work: “Don’t copy nature too closely. Art is an abstraction; as you dream amid nature, extrapolate art from it and concentrate on what you will create as a result ” (ibid., pp. 23-24).
During the period between August and October, Gauguin created in compelling succession a group of canvases that transformed painting then and for all time thereafter, several of which are illustrated on these pages, chief among them his first definitive masterwork, La vision du sermon. Gauguin offered to the local church his allegory of Jacob wrestling the Angel, inspired by actual matches held during a recent Pardon, a Catholic celebration of penitence. The puzzled priest turned him down. The painting became a sensation when word of it spread among artistic and literary circles in Paris; the mystery of Gauguin’s subject elicited numerous and differing interpretations.
The Symbolist poets were gratified to discover in Gauguin’s Vision the embodiment in painting of their mystical, anti-naturalist agenda. Young painters responded to the primitivism of Gauguin’s figures and his simplified stylization of landscape forms. They were moreover excited at the concept of adhering to the fundamental flatness of the picture plane, and welcomed the freedom to employ color as feeling and imagination, not the conventions of copying nature, might dictate. Gauguin’s recent correspondence with Van Gogh in Arles, and his friendship with the young, like-minded painter Émile Bernard had helped bring these ideas of synthétisme to fruition. “Painting is the most beautiful of arts,” Gauguin wrote. “In it, sensations are condensed; contemplating it, everyone can create a story at the will of his imagination and–with a single glance–have his soul invaded by the most profound recollections; no effort of memory, everything is summed up in one instant” (“Notes synthétiques,” 1888, in H. B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 61).
In early October 1888 Gauguin guided the 23-year-old painter Paul Sérusier, a student from the Académie Julian in Paris, as he painted in Le Bois d’Amour on the Aven river. “That shadow’s blue, really, isn’t it? So don’t be afraid, make it as blue as you can” (quoted in J. Russell, Vuillard, Greenwich, Conn., 1971, p. 15). On 21 October, having exchanged self-portraits, Gauguin left Pont-Aven to join Van Gogh in Arles, a meeting of two outsider spirits that two months later resulted in a cataclysmic battle of wills. The painting Sérusier brought back to the Académie astonished his classmates, including Bonnard, Denis, and Vuillard. They dubbed the painting Le talisman, and made it the inspiration for the next-generation avant-garde.
The first owner of Bretonne et oie au bord de l’eau was Gustave Fayet, a prosperous wine grower from Béziers, and a painter himself, who became the most important collector of Gauguin’s work during the opening years of the twentieth century. Buying from the dealer Vollard and Gauguin’s close friend Daniel de Monfreid, Fayet owned nearly a hundred of the artist’s paintings, ceramics, and wood carvings. He was instrumental in introducing Gauguin’s oeuvre to the Fauve painters, whom he also collected, as well as to the German artists who became expressionists, lending numerous works, including the present painting, to the first Gauguin exhibition in Germany, at Weimar in 1905, and to the artist’s posthumous retrospective at the 1906 Salon d’Automne. “Color has absolute power over Fayet,” the poet André Suarès wrote, “it intoxicates him, it is his delight” (quoted in H. Spurling, The Unknown Matisse: A Life of Henri Matisse, The Early Years, 1869-1908, New York, 1999, p. 355).